Backed by research and results

Voices in Motion was launched as a research project. We believe that ongoing research will benefit society at large as well as Voices in Motion, making it a cutting-edge program that offers a non-pharmacological intervention.

Social Singing Counters Stigma And Social Isolation:

Stigma represents one of the biggest barriers to living with dignity following a dementia diagnosis. According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, almost half of Canadians would not want others to know if they have dementia for fear of stigmatization — as a consequence, many individuals experience social isolation.

Why is this of concern? Social isolation is linked to elevated stress hormones and inflammation, poor sleep hygiene, and immunosuppression —well-known risk factors for numerous diseases (e.g., vascular disease, Alzheimer Disease) and death. Research findings indicate that social isolation poses a health risk comparable to being sedentary or smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

How can social singing counteract these risks? Music in general and social singing in particular is known to diminish levels of perceived stress, as well as facilitate better regulation of cortisol (a stress hormone). Similarly, levels of oxytocin – often referred to as the “cuddle chemical” – is a neuronal signaling molecule linked to the promotion of bonding and trust between individuals, as well as the reduction of stress. Recent findings have shown that oxytocin levels can double when singing together in a group, in contrast to singing on one’s own (Keeler et al., 2015). Overall, social singing is linked to a number of health advantages including social bonding with others, happiness, diminished stress, better immune function, and better sleep. In keeping with these findings, Voices in Motion is a success due to the social integration, the community engagement, and the movement itself.

Social Singing Recruits Intact Regions Of The Brain:

Virtually every behaviour that we engage in requires multiple neural circuits in the brain – this is most certainly true of music and singing. In its earliest stages, Alzheimer’s Disease typically damages a region of the brain called the entorhinal cortex, and a specific structure called the hippocampus. The magic of music, particularly the singing of songs that an individual with dementia has known for many years, is that that activity draws upon intact (as opposed to impaired) regions of the brain. Specifically, social singing draws upon emotional and procedural brain systems unaffected by dementia. Those with the disease participate in choir to the same degree as any other individual—a critical consideration for increasing social contact and reducing stigma, as well as for maximizing agency and providing a validating experience for individuals living with dementia.

Social Singing Is Distinct From Solo Singing:

Participation in the choir (group singing) in comparison to solo singing resulted in pronounced differences in brain activation:

Increased Oxygenation of the frontal cortex of the brain was measured for the solo versus social singing condition. Increased oxygenation/activation was observed while singing alone, which likely reflects both increased novelty as well as stress (as all previous rehearsals required group singing). In contrast, during choral (group) singing, the reduced levels of activation for this same brain region likely reflects reliance on other brain systems (emotional, procedural) to successfully participate in choir. Why do these differences matter? Notably, the frontal cortex is one of the regions of the brain known to deteriorate with dementia; accordingly, devising activities (such as singing well-known songs with a group) that minimize recruitment of such brain regions with enhance successful participation for those with dementia.

Social singing elicits neurochemical brain changesthat enhance contact, coordination and cooperation with others. Neurochemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are crucial for mood stabilization. They are not found in the same regions of the brain nor in abundance in the brains of those suffering from depression.

Music is a super-stimulus, drawing upon many brain systems unaffected by dementia, that permits those with the disease to participate in choir to the same degree as any other individual (a critical consideration for increasing social contact and reducing stigma).

Can Cognitive Function Really Improve?

Findings from the Voices in Motion choir have helped to underscore that engaging in a lifestyle intervention like social singing can improve many facets of function – psychological, social, neural, and even cognitive. Cognition – borrowed from the Latin term for “to know” — is characterized by many abilities including memory, attention, and language. A key focus of the Voices in Motion project concerned whether we could observe improvements in cognitive function by focusing on reducing other symptoms of dementia including depressive symptoms and signs, anxiety, and stress. Our preliminary findings support this possibility.

Episodic Memory. Memories of specific events and experiences are examples of episodic memory. Episodic memories are important because they allow you to recall details and personal experiences that are an important part of your life. Research findings from Voices in Motion suggest that the benefits of choir (improving quality of life and affect, reducing levels of agitation and distress) result in modest gains in memory function for persons living with dementia, with much larger gains observed for caregivers. How is this possible? Our findings suggest that the many benefits of social singing may result in reduced demands on brain function, which can then result in the use of these freed-up resources for demonstrating improvements in memory and cognition.

Global Cognition. One particular measure that we employ (the Mini Mental State Examination, or MMSE) measures various cognitive abilities including delayed memory, attention, language, visuospatial ability, and orientation in time and space – in this sense, it is considered a measure of global cognition. The MMSE is commonly administered to individuals living with dementia, and is often employed by clinicians to gauge progression of the disease. One of the novel features of the Voices in Motion study is the use of intensive longitudinal assessments – participants were tested approximately every month, with some individuals being assessed on up to 10 occasions over a 1.5-year period. Recent results show that, over the course of the entire study, rates of decline on the MMSE were lower than expected. The average participant with dementia in VIM declined about 1.3 units per year, compared to other non-intervention studies where rates of decline are 2-3 times faster. There was one fundamental distinction between the Voices in Motion study and the other investigations – the act of social singing and all of the benefits that this activity affords (developing community, engaging in activity with meaning and purpose, forming new friendships and support networks). These findings underscore the benefits of social singing for protecting against accelerated cognitive decline for persons with dementia.

Meet the five pioneers of Voices in Motion

Watch the video below as they share what they have learned personally and professionally from their experience with the choir – the moments that took them by surprise, the significant research findings and the human connections that were made. If you are interested in research possibilities, please contact Debra Sheets.

Presentations and Publications

Our researchers have been busy. Here is just a partial list of their presentations and publications.

TALKS

Sheets., D., MacDonald, S., Wilkins, M., Allison, T.  Voices in Motion: Results from a Community Choir Intervention to Promote Living Well with Dementia. Symposium. 75th Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America.  Virtual event. Nov 2020

Andersen, S., Gibson, A., Sheets, D., Heyne, P. Xie, B., Berridge, C., Marx, K. Innovative Interventions: Caring for Persons with Alzheimer’s Disease and Their Caregivers. Paper presented in a Symposium. 75th Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America.  Virtual event. Nov 2020

Sheets, D., Smith, A.P., McDowel, C., Santana, S., Cervantes, M., Roy, S., & MacDonald, S. Raising Our Voices: The Impact of a Dementia Choir on Caregiver Distress, Social Engagement and Cognitive Function.  Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, virtual event, July 27-31.2020

Smith, S., Erb, T., Kampen, R., MacDonald, S., & Sheets, D., Choral Singing with Dementia: Examining the experience and Impact of Embodied and Relational Musical Performance.  Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, virtual event, July 27-31.2020

Cervantes, M., Roy, S. White, A. Santana, S., Sheets, D., MacDonald, S. Caring and Singing Together: A Community Choir for People with Memory Loss and Their Caregivers. American Psychology Association Annual Convention, virtual event, Aug 6-8, 2020

MacDonald, Stuart W.S. (2018, May). On The Importance of Variability and Change for Detecting Health Function & Risk. Invited Talk presented at the MSFHR Collaborating and Convening Grant Meeting “Technologies in Assisted Living”, May 18, 2018, Elim Village, 9025 160 Street, Surrey, BC

MacDonald, S.W.S., Sheets, D.S., Smith, A.P., Trites, M., Kennedy, M., & Tamburri, C. (2018, October). Evaluating the impact of a social intervention on psychological outcomes for people with dementia. Paper presented as part of the symposium on “Focusing on Forte: The Benefits of a Community-based Choir for People Living with Dementia and their Care Partners” (co-chairs: Debra Sheets, Stuart MacDonald) at the 47th Annual Scientific and Educational Meeting of the Canadian Association on Gerontology, October 19, 2018, Vancouver, MB

MacDonald, S.W.S., Sheets, D.S., Tamburri, C., Trites, M., & Smith, A.P. (2018, November). Evaluating the Impact of a Social Intervention on Psychological Outcomes for Persons with Dementia and Their Caregivers. Paper presented as part of the symposium on “Working in Concert: A Multi-Method Exploration of the Impact of an Intergenerational Choir on Persons with Dementia and their Caregivers” (co-chairs: Debra Sheets, Stuart MacDonald, Andre Smith, & Helen Kivnick) at the 70th Annual Scientific and Educational Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, November 15, 2018, Boston, MA USA.

MacDonald, S.W.S. & Stawski, R.S. (2018, November). Intraindividual Variability Approaches to Cognitive Health and Aging: Synthesis and Implications. Paper presented as the discussant for the symposium on “Intraindividual Variability Approaches to Cognitive Health and Aging: Clinical, Neural and Psychosocial Links” (co-chairs: Robert Stawski & Stuart MacDonald) at the 70th Annual Scientific and Educational Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, November 17, 2018, Boston, MA USA.

Stawski, R.S. & MacDonald, S.W.S. (2018, November). Intraindividual Variability Approaches to Cognitive Health and Aging: An Overview. Paper presented as part of the symposium on “Intraindividual Variability Approaches to Cognitive Health and Aging: Clinical, Neural and Psychosocial Links” (co-chairs: Robert Stawski & Stuart MacDonald) at the 70th Annual Scientific and Educational Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, November 17, 2018, Boston, MA USA.

MacDonald, S.W.S., Smith, A.P. (2019, March). Finding our Forte: The Benefits of an Intergenerational Choir for People Living with Dementia and their Caregivers. Keynote presented at the University of Victoria’s Annual IdeaFest, Victoria, BC, March 7, 2019.

Sheets, D.A., Smith, A.P., & MacDonald, S.W.S. (2019, April). Voices in Motion: A Social Cognitive Choir Intervention for Those with Dementia. Talk presented at the Deans’ Lunchtime Lecture Series, Victoria, BC, April 5, 2019.

MacDonald, S.W.S. (2019, May). Music & Dementia and The Voices in Motion Choir. Talk presented at The University of Victoria’s Connect U Conference, May 22, 2019, Victoria, BC.

POSTERS

Kennedy, M., Sheets, D., MacDonald, S.W.S., Smith, A., Asche, C., Sima, C., Gali, B., Malone, M., & Young, W. (2018, April). Voices in Motion: An Intergenerational Choir for Older Adults with Dementia and their Caregivers. Poster presented at the 15th Annual Geriatric Services Conference, Vancouver, BC, April 6, 2018.

Sheets, D, MacDonald, S.W.S., Smith, A.P., & Kennedy, M. (2018, June). Finding our Forte: The Benefits of a Community Choir for People Living with Dementia and their Care Partners. Poster presented at the Thirteenth International Conference on the Arts in Society, June 27-29, 2018, Vancouver, BC.

Grewal, K.S., Sheets, D.S., Smith, A.P., Trites, M., Kennedy, M., Tamburri, C., & MacDonald, S.W.S. (2018, September). A Community Choir to Facilitate Psychosocial and Cognitive Health for Caregivers and Persons with Dementia. Poster presented at the Canadian Frailty Network 2018 National Conference on Frailty, September 20-22, 2018, Toronto, ON.

Sheets, D., Malone, M., MacDonald, Smith, A., & Hundza, S. (2018) Voice Assisted Technologies to Support Persons Living with Dementia and their Care Partners. Poster presented at the 47th Annual Meeting of the Canadian Association on Gerontology, October 18-20, 2018, Vancouver, BC.

Walters, A., Sheets, D., MacDonald, S., Smith, A. (2019, March) A Chorus for Caregivers: The impact of an intergenerational Choir on Family Caregivers for Persons with Dementia. Poster presented at the Jamie Cassels Undergraduate Research Awards (JCURA) Fair, University of Victoria, March 2019. Victoria, BC.

Davie, F., Sheets, D., Kennedy, M., MacDonald, S., Smith, A. (2019, March) An Intergenerational Choir for People with Dementia and Care Partners: The Perceptions of High School Students. Poster presented at the Jamie Cassels Undergraduate Research Awards (JCURA) Fair, University of Victoria, March 2019. Victoria, BC.

Tamburri, C., Trites, M., Sheets, D.A., Smith, A.P., & MacDonald, S.W.S. (2019, April). An Intergenerational Community Choir to Promote Psychosocial and Cognitive Health for Caregivers and Persons with Dementia. Poster presented at the annual Making Waves conference, Victoria, BC, April 5, 2019.

Tamburri, C., Trites, M., Sheets, D., Smith, A.P., & MacDonald S.W.S (2019, May). A Music Intervention for Improving Cognitive and Neural Function in Persons with Dementia. Poster to be presented at the annual Northwest Cognition and Memory Conference, Victoria, BC, May 9-11, 2019.

Colloquia Organized at National/International Conferences
Sheets, D. & MacDonald, S.W.S. (2018, October). Focusing on Forte: The Benefits of a Community-based Choir for People Living with Dementia and their Care Partners (Chairs: Debra Sheets & Stuart MacDonald). Symposium presented at the 47th Annual Scientific and Educational Meeting of the Canadian Association on Gerontology, October 19, 2018, Vancouver, MB

Sheets, D., MacDonald, S.W.S., Smith, A.P., & Kivnick, H. (2018, November). Co-Chair of Symposium entitled “Working in Concert: A Multi-Method Exploration of the Impact of an Intergenerational Choir on Persons with Dementia and their Caregivers.” Symposium organized for the Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, November 14-18, 2018, Boston, USA.

Stawski, R.S., & MacDonald, S.W.S. (2018, November). Co-Chair of Symposium entitled “Intraindividual Variability Approaches to Cognitive Health and Aging: Clinical, Neural and Psychosocial Links.” Symposium organized for the Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, November 14-18, 2018, Boston, USA.

PUBLICATIONS

Tamurri, N., Trites, M., Sheets, D.J., Smith, A.P., & MacDonald, S.W.S. (in press). The Promise of Intergenerational Choir for Improving Psychosocial and Cognitive Health for those with Dementia: The Voices in Motion Project. Arbutus Review.

*authors contributed equally to this work

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